Real Bad fuels community activism by partying with a purpose

New exhibition at GLBT History Museum spotlights queer dance party

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Graham Haught/Staff

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In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic led to extreme sex negativity, during which medical advice became mixed up with issues of morality, resulting in hostility toward sexual activity of any kind in the LGBT community.

The queer community in San Francisco found ways to escape from this sex negativity and the devastation of the AIDS crisis at street fairs (such as the Castro and Folsom street fairs), festivals and nightclubs. Real Bad is the name of the queer dance party that takes place annually after the fetish event Folsom Street Fair. It is also a fundraising event that seeks to benefit LGBT charities that create local impact in San Francisco. Over the past 25 years, the event has raised nearly $1.7 million and fueled community activism with its message of “partying with a purpose.” Real Bad is currently the focus of a new multimedia exhibition at the GLBT History Museum, “Be Bad … Do Good: Activism with a Beat.”

The GLBT History Museum’s Corner Gallery holds a series of small, focused exhibits on display for one to four months that aim to offer new perspectives on queer history in the Bay Area. The exhibition, while small, offers a powerful insight into a distinctly San Franciscan organization. Gina Gatta, who curated the show along with Suzan Revah, has been involved with Real Bad for 21 years. Gatta considers Real Bad to be a reflection of the gay culture that is distinct to San Francisco: “The fact of the matter is that San Francisco is a gay city first and foremost. We don’t have the need that a small town does, to have a couple of nightclubs for gatherings, to connect to each other … The gay community in San Francisco is overwhelming. It doesn’t compare to any other city in the world.”

However, the gay clubbing culture has changed significantly since the early Real Bad parties. Gatta attributes this change to social media. “There’s just no need for bars like there were in the past, straight or gay,” she explained. “The opportunity for chance meeting is reduced.” New social media sites and dating apps like Grindr, Manhunt, Tinder, GayRomeo, Bender and OkCupid have transformed the way people date and socialize, virtually eliminating the need to go to bars whether you’re looking for a relationship or one-night stand.

One of the features of the exhibition is a documentary about the history of Real Bad, about which Gatta said, “We really showcase the fact that back in 1991, organizations like Stop AIDS were just starting, and we needed to raise money to help them to get going because the organizations that were being created didn’t have any funding. We thought, ‘Let’s get together and throw a fundraiser, a dance party, and give all the funds to these emergency services to help our friends deal with this AIDS crisis.’”

25 years later, there is still an emphasis on a sense of community at Real Bad. Despite the event being heavily marketed to gay men, Gatta believes Real Bad is still welcoming to those who identify as female, trans* and straight. “If you’ve ever been to a gay bar, you know that the best time you’re ever gonna have — straight, gay, lesbian, boy gay, girl gay — is at a gay boys’ club,” she said. “It’s the best music; it’s the sexiest people. That’s why the majority of the crowd is 2,000 hot sexy guys.

“Over the past 25 years, it’s become quite a reunion of a party. It happens during Folsom (Street Fair) weekend, so a lot of people travel from around the world to come, friends you don’t see all year long. Many times, I would go there just to see old friends and to reconnect with people, because everybody was dying back then, so we came together like, ‘Oh, you’re still alive, that’s great!’”

“Be Bad…Do Good” runs through Oct. 27, 2013. Admission to the museum is $5.00 (general); $3.00 (California students); free for members of the GLBT Historical Society. For more information, visit www.glbthistorymuseum.org.

Meadhbh McGrath is the arts editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Check her out on Twitter at @MeadhbhMcGrath.

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